Bodies Beholden: The Changed Corporeality of David Salle’s New Paintings

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In a 2008 commercial for the Swiffer SweeperVac, a conservatively clad woman weaves back and forth with the futuristic device, apparently engaged in an intimate dance. The broom she’s cast aside in favor of the SweeperVac croons “baby come back!” and scatters a trail of rose petals to the hot tub in the backyard. But the broom’s owner has already succumbed to the wiles of the machine that, in the commercial’s opening shot, swished so caressingly across her floors. In the most effective advertisements it is products, not their human stewards, that succeed in seducing us.

David Salle: New Paintings, a late-Spring exhibition at the Skarstedt Gallery in New York, presented an array of objects more alluring than bodies. The show consisted of a series of loud, bright works, the Late Product Paintings (2014-2015), interspersed with offerings from the comparatively muted Silver Paintings (2014-2015), which feature a model ensconced in amorphous garments or draping. Both sets of images explicitly allude to Salle’s older work: the Late Product Paintings series incorporates imagery directly culled from his Early Product Paintings (1993), and the Silver Paintings imitate photographs that Salle took of performer Massimo Audiello posing in front of the aforementioned Early Product Paintings in 1992, when they were still unfinished. The artist transferred these photographic images onto linen canvases without the aid of digital technologies, and the 2014-2015 Silver Paintings, with their aged, grainy quality, are the result. Compared with the Late Product Paintings, which overflow with a richly textured wealth of images of cigarettes, toothbrushes, and foodstuffs, the human bodies in the Silver Paintings appear flat and subdued. Salle’s objects are more corporeal than the bodies they complement, and in David Salle: New Paintings, the human form is superseded by the process of commercialization that has come to shape and define it.

This is not the first time that Salle has conflated object and physique, experimenting with curiously inanimate bodies. The artist has long been famous – at times notorious – for the sexualized and arguably objectified female figures that people his early work. In paintings like Schoolroom (1985) and His Brain (1984), nude or revealingly clad women bend over, exposing their buttocks and obstructing their faces, inviting us to desire them even as our invasive gaze depersonalizes them. In Schoolroom, an anonymous male hand is crammed up an anonymous skirt, an indiscretion that we view from the uneasy angle of behind and below.

Salle’s critics, Brooks Adams, Robert Storr, and Roberta Smith among them, have argued that these images are misogynistic – but Salle often depicts the subordination of female agency to male fantasy as isolating and unglamorous. His nudes labor in contorted positions, harshly lit and elaborately posed. In Closer (2011), a woman lies supine on a bed. Her posture is stiff, as if Salle has stretched her out on a surgical table, offering her up for dissection. Indeed, one of her hands remains sketchy and indistinct, stripped of layers of detail and dimension and reduced to the painterly equivalent of its skeleton. This image doesn’t titillate so much as sadden, repurposing the tropes of pornography in the service of a different end, intimating that an amorous encounter is too often a rote operation akin to a surgical procedure. Like the bodies draped in cloth in the Silver Paintings, the female figures in Salle’s early work are inaccessible to us: his initial nudes are also “clothed” to the point of inaccessibility, albeit in the contrivance of their stylized nakedness. The Silver Paintings are an explicit nod to Magritte’s morose, despairing portrait of failed eroticism, the 1928 painting The Lovers, which depicts a kissing couple swathed in two separate sheets. Divided by their respective layers, the titular lovers can’t quite reach one another’s lips. Salle’s earlier nudes are a thematic nod to this image, with its dour insistence on interpersonal unattainability.

The latest exhibition at the Skarstedt extrapolates on Salle’s beloved theme of bodies beholden to things. Where the objects in the Late Product Paintings seem to protrude from their canvases, the model and backdrop in the Silver Paintings are flattened into a plane. The latter series documents the transformation of a body into its representation. The images that constitute the Silver Paintings began as photographs with clear ties to their flesh-and-blood subject, but they evolved into paintings of photographs that maintain only a nebulous link with the physical body that occasioned them. The resulting portraits are lifeless and fixed, while the products in the Late Product Paintings are dizzyingly mobile: crackers spill from their wrappings, milk gushes from an overturned glass, and thick globs of toothpaste ooze from a tube and onto a bristling brush.

These objects incite us, literally and figuratively, to consumption, tempting viewers with outsized foodstuffs that make dramatic claims on their canvases. Fragments of advertisements are paired with pies, crackers, ice-cream bars. While Salle’s women and men are sketchy, more like allusions to bodies than bodies themselves, an exquisitely lifelike slice of banana-cream pie, directed almost accusingly outward, looks thick enough to touch, in Yellow Fellow (2015). Even the rich depth of Salle’s layered toothpaste has a voluptuous quality. Paradoxically, it’s his renderings of the inanimate world that most stimulate his audience’s animal appetites.

Ballantine’s (2014), one of the Late Product Paintings not exhibited at the Skarstedt, emphasizes this reversal of the usual roles. An intrusive human hand in the lower right-hand corner of the painting seems fitted to the bottle of whiskey it grasps: it functions as a prop in the service of its possession. The canvas is otherwise dominated by an outsized box of crackers, its contents tumbling from their packaging – an image that recurs in Faster Healing (2014), where crackers topple from the top of the canvas to the bottom, creating a strong diagonal focus. To their left, an upside-down woman, her head severed by the lower parameter of the canvas, stands docilely by.

Salle’s bodies, so often faceless and even headless, are individualized only by the vivacity of their accessories, and in paintings like Waste King, 2014 (another Late Product Painting that wasn’t exhibited), objects contextualize and color the human form. The two female figures in the center of the painting aren’t shaded in: they are translucent, humanoid frames through which we glimpse a bed and a furnished interior. Compared with the anemic women, the bed, rendered in a bright red, is dynamic, even sanguine. In Waste King, as in Salle’s earlier and more obviously sexual works, female bodies are drained of their substance. Eroticism is a matter of gestural rather than physical exchange.

Indeed, Salle’s paintings, with their explicitly material focus on products and commodities, are implicitly ethereal in their defiance of the mandates of physicality. In paintings like Ode and Aires (2014), we swim in a jerky collage, not of images integrated into a single pictorial plane, but of isolated pictures jostling against one another and competing for our attention. Overlaying a printed musical score is an advertisement for milk and several disembodied heads and torsos. In this painting, as in the rest of the Late Product Paintings, objects vault on top of one another without ever coming into contact. Salle’s work is set for the most part in a non-space, an impossible domain in which images of different scales and scopes collide but do not touch.

But if Salle’s objects seem to float past one another, it’s because they’re no longer objects in the conventional sense: as products become indistinguishable from their advertisements, materials become indistinguishable from their images. Salle is a representational painter not for depicting the external world but for depicting further representations. The Late Product Paintings refer to the Early Product Paintings, and the Silver Paintings refer to photographs of the Early Product Paintings – and, in turn, the Early Product Paintings refer only to images in advertisements.

Yet Salle acknowledges that a rejection of conventional realist modes does not free us from the constraints of social context – and it’s this very revelation that functions, as the critic Carter Ratcliff has noted, as a rebuke to Minimalist painters like Ad Reinhardt. In her 1986 essay “The Originality of the Avant-Garde,” critic and art historian Rosalind Krauss accuses Reinhardt and his cohort of aspiring to ahistoricism: these artists see their work, Krauss writes, as anti-narrative, “impervious both to time and incident.” Their fantasy is one of hermetic insularity, of occupying a self-contained world that refers to nothing beyond its own aesthetics. In contrast, Salle’s work hastens to acknowledge its deep embeddedness within visual and pop culture. If, as the Late Product Paintings suggest, reality is increasingly imagistic and laden with references, our new landscape carries its own host of expectations and constraints that comprise an inescapable vocabulary. In deference to their origins, Salle’s “new paintings” at the Skarstedt are obsessively referential, marked by their nostalgia for the iconography of the 1940s and ‘50s and their attentiveness to the flashy feats of contemporary advertising.

But the greater the hold that images have on us, the greater the impact of imagistic resistance: Salle’s recognition that we operate within a rigid visual order empowers him to more effectively flout the established grammars. His pointed refusal to defer to perspectival convention allows him to juxtapose images without conflating them – to countenance glaring contradictions. In an interview with Bill Powers featured in the exhibition catalogue, Salle notes that he wants “the differences to show, but to somehow be resolved anyway. It’s symphonic.” And in this way he sets out to solve the riddle of unending consumption, fueled by advertisements that trade in impossible promises. In the Late Product Paintings, where images are heaped on one another to create an impossibly dense and intolerably sumptuous tableau, we really can have it all. Confronted with Salle’s indulgent creations, we enjoy a sensation all-too rare outside the gallery: we are over-saturated and nauseated, but also, mercifully, satiated.

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